Intrigue in Shushan

What is it, then, that we celebrate in the frivolity of Purim?

‘The Triumph of Mordecai’ (1624) by Pieter Pietersz Lastman, in the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘The Triumph of Mordecai’ (1624) by Pieter Pietersz Lastman, in the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Purim is a raucous holiday. With gifts and costumes and perhaps a little wine, it is a day (or, in Israel, what seems like an entire week) of celebration and happiness.
What is the source of this festive atmosphere? Our automatic assumption is that an answer may be found in Megilat Esther, the Book of Esther, which tells the story of this unique celebration and is read on Purim. And yet the story told in the megila is a complex one and, in fact, gives only a partial answer to our question.
At the very least, we must admit that as far as the heroine of the tale is concerned, the story’s ending was not necessarily “happily ever after” on a personal level.
More generally, the megila describes turbulent times, rife with existential danger, reversals of fortune and dramatic changes of status. The complications are magnified when we read the text through the eyes of traditional rabbinic commentary.
Ahasuerus is introduced as a king who loves to party.
We know very little about him from the text, other than that he seems to be a gracious host, attentive and caring – that is, to everyone but his wife. We are provided with important background information about this Persian monarch by rabbinic tradition: He was a usurper to the throne. The real royalty was his wife Vashti.
When Ahasuerus overthrew the king, the foremost symbol of his conquest was Vashti, whom he wished to display for all to see, like all of his other possessions and conquests. Thus, the order to parade Vashti before the officers and ministers of his court was no mere drunken whim; the very fact that he could order her to appear was proof of his power and authority.
Although some 20th- and 21st-century writers have described Vashti as a feminist heroine, it would be best to avoid reading modern values into ancient sources. It seems likely that the struggle between Vashti and Ahasuerus was not a battle between sexes as much as between classes, namely, between the new ruling class and the old regime that had been ousted by force.
Vashti’s refusal to comply puts Ahasuerus in an untenable position; in fact, all the other nouveau lords and ministers understood the problem immediately: Vashti’s defiance threatened them as much as it did the king, for all of them had taken the estates and wives of the former aristocracy. They feared all the conquered women would follow Vashti’s cue, and a wide-scale rebellion would result. They urged Ahasuerus to nip the uprising in the bud, forcing him to choose between losing his trophy wife and losing his throne.
Theirs was not a loving relationship. Vashti detested the former stable boy who had risen to power through violence and ruthlessness, nor did she have any illusions about her husband’s priorities or methods. She made a conscious choice in favor of her own dignity by refusing to be put on display, choosing death over a life of subjugation and humiliation.
With Vashti gone, however, Ahasuerus was faced with a new problem: He was in desperate need of the stamp of legitimacy and nobility Vashti had provided. His most significant trophy was gone, and he needed a new queen.
An empire-wide search was initiated, capped off by a bizarre and sordid contest: The winner would become queen and the losers would join the royal harem, the “stable” of the king’s mistresses. Ironically, but not surprisingly, Esther, the Jewish girl who had no desire to be queen, was chosen. Her disinterest, her lack of desire to win, her standoffish attitude, were precisely what reminded Ahasuerus of his notso- dearly departed aristocratic wife Vashti. Esther was the perfect Vashti replacement.
Things begin to move along smoothly for Ahasuerus: He subcontracts most decisions to his diabolical, megalomaniacal, anti-Semitic chief-of-staff, Haman. And as diabolical, megalomaniacal anti-Semites are wont to do, Haman conceives a plan to make the world Judenrein.
The pieces begin to come together; the gears begin to mesh. Esther, who has been perceived up to this point as passive, distant, even docile, reveals a completely different side of her personality, displaying leadership, spunk and brilliance. On the one hand she requests that the Jews fast and pray for her. On the other hand, she sets in motion a plan to divide and conquer, pitting the vainglorious Haman against her insecure, paranoid husband.
She invites both men to a private party.
The ever-suspicious Ahasuerus cannot sleep; he knows something is awry, but is racked with doubt. Is Haman plotting against him, or is it Esther? Are they perhaps in cahoots? Will he be forced, once again, to choose between two things he values – his wife and his closest adviser – in order to remain on the throne? Perhaps he should have both threats eliminated, have both Haman and Esther killed, despite the messy and inconvenient aftershocks? This is not, after all, the first plot to assassinate him. It had happened before, when, of all people, a Jew named Mordecai had saved his life.
Unable to sleep, in search of insight or precedent, he reads through old protocols when his train of thought is interrupted by a commotion outside: Haman has come to the palace, uninvited, in hopes of convincing the king to have Mordecai executed. Ahasuerus, focused on solidifying his power, is keen to publicly reward Mordecai for his loyalty, as a means of staving off insurgency.
For his part, Haman is completely focused on himself.
Oozing megalomania, he can think of no one more worthy of the king’s largesse than himself, and suggests that the unnamed object of Ahasuerus’s favor be dressed in the king’s clothes and paraded through the city on the king’s horse by a member of the court.
This is clearly not the wisest thing to suggest to an insecure ruler who is hypersensitive to the trappings of royalty. Ahasuerus’s suspicions about Haman are compounded by Haman’s own greedy grab at the spotlight. It is surely no coincidence that Ahasuerus, himself an erstwhile stable boy, commands Haman himself to lead the royal mount through the streets of Shushan. This is a demeaning job for a person of such high station, a clear demotion, and perhaps also a silent warning to this upwardly mobile adviser to tread carefully: The path between the palace and the stables can be a two-way street.
One party follows another. On the second night, Esther levels accusations at Haman in language she knows will resonate in Ahasuerus’s tortured mind – Haman has been insubordinate, and has attempted to manipulate Ahasuerus into a self-destructive policy that would eliminate the king’s most loyal subjects and bring about widespread unrest in the kingdom. Soon Haman is led to the very gallows he had prepared for Mordecai, while Mordecai, and with him all the Jews of the kingdom, rise to unprecedented positions of respect and influence.
What is it that we celebrate, then, in the frivolity of Purim? An unbiased reading of the story leaves us nonplussed, because it seems no more than the story of a man who kills his wife on the advice of his best friend and then kills his best friend on the advice of his wife.
For Jews, though, the story cannot be read without a very particular bias: For us, Purim is a joyous day. The megila is a microcosm of a very particular view of Jewish history, fraught with assimilation and heroism, existential danger and divine intervention, and above all, Jewish survival against seemingly insurmountable odds.
The Book of Esther celebrates our collective happy ending; it celebrates the miracle of Jewish survival, marked each year with food and drink and the exchange of gifts and goodwill.
It celebrates the fact that the real and true King, the only King, the Master of the Universe, has stepped in to rescue us from annihilation throughout history, and it gives us hope that He will never abandon us, even in times of great darkness and danger. L’haim!